Illegal excavations and online trade of cultural property looted in the midst of COVID- 19

16 July 2020

On 26 June 2020, UNESCO brought together world experts for an online meeting to examine the impact of COVID-19 on illicit trafficking and to identify a set of urgent measures to be taken to strengthen the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property at sites and on the Internet.

The experts represented partner organizations including the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), the World Customs Organization (WCO), and UNIDROIT (International Institute for the Unification of Private Law), the ATHAR project, (Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research), heritage institutions, and universities.

To begin the discussion, Ernesto Ottone R., UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture, recalled the online meeting of 14 May 2020 with main partners in the fight against illicit trafficking wherein increasing online sales of antiques from illegal excavations were reported. He referred to the investigative work of the ATHAR project that led to Facebook adopting its new policy, supporting UNESCOs recommendation, to prohibit the trade in all historic artefacts on its platform, including Instagram.

The experts in the first panel confirmed the dire consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had adversely affected the surveillance of archaeological sites and museums. The suggested solutions to improve the situation included the use of new technologies to monitor looted goods on social networks, involving local communities more in the protection of archaeological sites, and sanctioning sellers and buyers who do not carry out the appropriate checks to guarantee the proper provenance of cultural objects. The panelists stressed how constraints imposed by the pandemic exposed countries weaknesses and demonstrated the difficulty of applying safety measures to combat illicit excavations and trafficking since the beginning of the health crisis.

In a second panel, experts confirmed the increase in online sales of cultural goods, mostly from illicit archaeological excavations. "One of the 120 Facebook groups that ATHAR monitors had around 300,000 members in March 2020, and in one month it gained 128,000 new members. It now has almost half a million said Katie A. Paul, Co-Director of the ATHAR-Project.

The panellists recalled that the majority of 30% of objects purchased online and seized by the police came from archaeological excavations. They strongly recommended that countries urgently create specialized police units to monitor Internet platforms in order to actively cooperate in the dismantling of illegal sales. They also recommended greater use of the tools already created by UNESCO and its partners, such as the UNESCO Database on National Cultural Heritage Legislation, the ICOM Red List of Cultural Objects at Risk, and the INTERPOL Stolen Artwork Database.

To conclude the discussion, Ernesto Ottone R. called for greater international mobilization to fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property. As we celebrate 50 years of UNESCO's efforts this year and are going through these difficult times, we must double our efforts in the fight against this global scourge, and this meeting shows that appropriate measures and responses can help achieve this goal.

This important event, which engaged the international community, was part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Convention on measures to prohibit and prevent the illegal import, export and transfer of property cultural property.

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